Chinese Automation Prospects: Tempering Western Expectations

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August 23, 2018      

Robotic systems continue to spread around the world, showing countries’ influence and reach beyond their own borders. This week saw China flexing its muscles with its robot strategy and Russian police robots preparing to enter Asia and the Middle East, among other developments.

Robotics Business Review has partnered with Abishur Prakash at Center for Innovating the Future to provide its readers with cutting-edge insights into recent developments in international robotics, artificial intelligence, and unmanned systems. Are you ready to be updated?

Study: Robots can influence children’s decisions

Robotics development: According to a new study, researchers have found that social robots are able to influence the decisions of children. In one experiment, children were instructed to complete a task alongside robots. When time came to give an answer, 74% of children gave the wrong answer, giving the same answer that the robots gave, verbatim.

Geopolitical significance: The study of children and “robot peer pressure” reflects one of the most overlooked risks that robots could bring. As robots take on a variety of roles, from teacher to advisor, they could exercise control over human beings.

Earlier this month, a study by researchers in Germany found that people struggled to turn off a robot if it “pleaded with them.” Certain people refused to turn it off after it constantly asked them to not to.

If people are influenced and affected by what robots say or do, then the world could look fundamentally different in the future. For example, the Chinese government last month said it was developing AI systems that would analyze data and propose foreign policy to Chinese diplomats stationed around the world. In other words, Chinese diplomats will be influenced by what AI is telling them.

In addition, Japan’s ministry of education announced it will be putting robots in classrooms to teach English, starting in April 2019. Students learning English from robots may be influenced by what they say or do, affecting the child’s behavior.

It is imperative that governments start thinking about this aspect of robotics and the assumptions and biases built into AI. It is about the future of societies. Robotics firms themselves may find themselves in murky water if a government doesn’t like the way a specific product or service is influencing people.

As robot ethics and robot laws are debated, so too should robots’ influence on humans. Otherwise, when a robot misleads a human into doing something, or when a human behaves a certain way after being guided by robots, governments and robotics firms may be caught off guard.

Russian-made robocops could be patrolling Asia soon

Robotics development: According to Promobot, a Russian robotics company that manufactures social robots, countries throughout Asia could soon be using Russian-made policing robots as early as 2019-2020.

Last month, Promobot held a pilot project in Kazakhstan, where its policing robot was used. According to the company, countries throughout the Middle East, Central Asia and Asia-Pacific have expressed interest in using the Russian-made robots.

Geopolitical significance: As Russia’s resurgence continues, robotics is increasingly becoming part of Russian foreign policy. This isn’t the first time this has happened. For several years now, robotics has been part of the Russia-China relationship. Both countries have launched a joint-robotics center and incubator with a $200 million investment fund. Russia and China have also set up the Russia-China Centre for Medical Robots, and Promobot has already exported 100 of its robots to China.

Things are also taking place beyond China. In June, Promobot signed a 5-year deal to export 2,800 of its robots to the U.S. Also, several advanced Russian military robots, including a robot tank, are slated to be sold on international markets in the near future.

As Russia moves to build ties around the world, its robot strategy is a key part. However, Russia’s export of policing robots reflects a new phase for Russia, and it should alarm foreign robotics companies.

As Russia takes its policing robots to China, South Korea, Japan, the Middle East and Central Asia, it means two things. First, the policing robots could act as a “stepping stone” for Russia to sell other types of robots. Second, Russia’s robots may cut out foreign firms from the market.

Both of these possibilities carry geopolitical implications. They also mean that firms located in the U.S. and Western Europe are seeing foreign markets change due to the introduction of robots from non-Western countries. Without a global robot strategy, the ability to sell into these markets will shrink. How can you sell facial recognition, bomb disposal, or disaster management robots if markets are already cornered?

China shows off robot strategy at World Robot Conference

Robotics development: The 2018 World Robot Conference, held in Beijing, China, has been as much about showing the latest and greatest as it has been about Chinese muscle flexing. China has showed off a range of different robots, including “battle bots,” robot doctors, robot teachers, and new industrial automation.

Geopolitical significance: In the past week, there have been several contradictory headlines about China’s robot strategy. First, one article stated that China “trails” the U.S. in robotics and AI.

Then, several pieces were published on the various robotics innovations that were being trumped around the World Robot Conference.

And last, China’s vice premier said that China wanted to work with the U.S. on robotics and was preparing steps to open up its market, such as reducing rules around investment.

These headlines don’t necessarily connect with one another, and revealing something: The world is still uncertain as to where China is in its robotics journey. Is it ahead of the U.S.? Behind Europe? Tied with Japan?

The truth is, China is none of these things and all of these things. That’s because the filter being applied to China is wrong. The world is judging China through the same filters it judged countries in the past: patents, funding, the startup ecosystem. These may be important, especially for investors, but they don’t paint the full picture.

To understand China’s robotics journey, there needs to be a deep awareness of the potential of what China is developing and investing in.

If the same “awareness” was applied to China’s work in facial recognition, then the emergence of Chinese facial recognition in Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and Indonesia wouldn’t have caught international observers by surprise.

In the same light, what China is showing off at the World Robot Conference is a window into what will start to pop up around the world in the coming years. From robot teachers to robot doctors, China’s robot strategy is to sell services that may be lower in cost than robot arms, but have a huge base. If the world can look at China through an updated lens, then it will realize that China’s robotics journey is broken into phases. What’s taking place at the World Robot Conference is the beginning of a new phase.